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Jack Johnstone, Creator Of The Triathlon, Dies At 80

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Sometimes you try a thing and then it becomes an event at the Olympics. OK, so maybe that's not very common, but it is Jack Johnstone's story. He and a buddy decided to put together a race that included swimming, running and biking - the triathlon. Jack Johnstone died last week at the age of 80. And from member station KPBS in San Diego, Claire Trageser has this remembrance.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: It was a Wednesday after work in 1974. Jack Johnstone and his friend Don Shanahan gathered 46 men and women in San Diego's Mission Bay. They were there for what they thought would be a novelty race that combined swimming, biking and running. Here's Jack's wife, Betty Johnstone.

BETTY JOHNSTONE: I thought it was a crazy idea, and he never thought it would go anywhere. He just thought it'd be a one-time fun event.

TRAGESER: They were wrong. Well over two million people now finish triathlons each year, and the race is well-known from the Olympics and the Ironman in Hawaii. Johnstone was an All-American swimmer in college, but by the time he married Betty, she says he'd fallen out of shape. At age 35, he started running to lose weight, and he became slightly addicted to exercise.

JOHNSTONE: He was, you know, so dedicated to it. I always ran in the morning 'cause I wanted to get it over with and have the rest of my day to myself. And he said that's not the right attitude at all. You should look forward to it all day.

TRAGESER: Jack Johnstone was a recreational athlete, driven to compete only against himself. He never thought the sport he'd help create would become a new entryway to exercise for thousands.

DON SHANAHAN: I think most people who do that kind of training have a certain competitive edge. And it doesn't matter how good they are. But it's that certain competitiveness - it's a certain, I would say, gratification.

TRAGESER: That's Don Shanahan who organized the first triathlon with Johnstone. Both of them had ideas for races that combined multiple sports and both talked separately to the San Diego track club about putting on a race.

SHANAHAN: And they said, well, Shanahan has this crazy idea. Why don't you talk to him?

TRAGESER: They talked about the race.

SHANAHAN: And we ran with it - literally.

TRAGESER: Today, most triathlons start with swimming about a mile then biking 25 miles and running 6.2 miles. But Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan did things differently. Their participants started with a run, followed by biking. Then they swam, then ran again in bare feet, then swam again, then ran again. Then, strangest of all say Shanahan, the race ended by crawling up a steep dirt bank to the finish.

SHANAHAN: So you had to crawl to the finish line no matter how good you were.

TRAGESER: Johnstone was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2013. His wife, Betty, says he was always very proud of what he'd created, especially when the triathlon became an Olympic sport in the year 2000.

JOHNSTONE: We laughed about it. In high school, I used to be in the synchronized swim programs. And so I said, gee, you know, my high school activity is now an Olympic sport and your triathlon's an Olympic sport (laughter) something we never would've thought would happen.

TRAGESER: Before Alzheimer's took Jack Johnstone's memory, he wrote about competing in that first triathlon on his website. Quote, "as I dismounted my bike and tried to run, my legs felt like they didn't belong to my body. I let out a moan of anguish and remember someone yelling to me, well, it was your idea." At that first triathlon, Jack Johnstone came in sixth. For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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